‘The Private Life of William Shakespeare’

Neither a literary biography nor a full autobiography, this book takes a narrow look at what the surviving documents tell us, and when their trail has run out, what documents about his neighbors might reveal about the events that defined Shakespeare’s life in Stratford: his father’s financial collapse, his marriage, and his homes (including In it are his “birthplace”, which was likely damaged by fire in the 1890s, and then rebuilt), and his will and memorials. Although most of it consists of intense scientific analysis, it reads like a detective story in which a skilled detective returns to a cold case.

It amounts to a review photo of the artist. The transgressive image of Shakespeare that has circulated in recent years – universally, perhaps secretly Catholic, most likely gay or bisexual, eager to flee Stratford – has been replaced by Shakespeare who is a “family man” in close economic partnership with his wife. He is especially loyal to his father, whose fall from the height of the Stratford leadership of a man who dreaded leaving his home for fear of arrest for debt was, for Orlin, the “characteristic event” of Shakespeare’s private life, from which “everything else follows.” She explains Shakespeare’s marriage at the age of (which would have ended any apprenticeship and forbade college education) as an act that helped restore his family’s fortunes. Most scholars have read Shakespeare’s last will as cold at best, especially when it comes to his family. But Orlin sees it otherwise. that it was not, like many Jacobite wills, “expressive”, except that it shows how every gift that Shakespeare identifies, including clothing, sword, bowl, and this infamous bed, shares an “imprint of indefinite sadness”.

It also shows that much of what we take for granted about Shakespeare’s life hangs on the finest archival thread. No record of Anne Hathaway’s baptism survives, and the only reason to believe she was eight years older than Shakespeare is the number that appears on her brass monument—often sufficient, Orlin explains, or not accurately remembered or presented. In her diligent search, Orlean found a baptismal record from 1566 of Joanna Hathaway, daughter (as Shakespeare’s wife) of Richard Hathaway of Shottery. Orlin doesn’t push the possibility too hard, but if this was the woman Shakespeare married – her first name is inaccurately transcribed – Anne might have been two years younger than her husband.

Three contemporary portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as authoritative. One is the oddly executed woodcut that appears on the first folio of 1623. Another is the romantic portrait of Chandos now in the National Portrait Gallery. These two are endlessly reproduced. Not the third, a colorful limestone statue at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, in which Shakespeare appears—as scholar John Dover Wilson said—”a self-satisfied butcher of pork.” Orlin’s description of this monument is definitive. It sends packages of “skeptics” to whom a conspiratorial cover-up explains the differences between the 17th-century drawings of this monument and the dolls that were repeatedly repaired and looted (from which actor David Garrick stole his “right forefinger”). She goes on to suggest that Shakespeare likely commissioned the statue and met Nicholas Johnson, the artist who made it. If so, like it or not, that’s how Shakespeare wanted him to be remembered. Her account, detailed and fascinating, also left me heartbroken, too soon, given cutbacks in funding and training, that kind of scholarship may no longer be possible.

Shakespeare’s biography is often marked by transgression, and Orlin is not immune. As an academic, she can’t help paraphrasing Shakespeare as one, urging us to “envision Shakespeare’s participation in the intellectual culture of Oxford” and assert that “Shakespeare had lectures and sermons in university churches”. There is no conclusive evidence for these claims. Having argued that Shakespeare had a study in New Place, the great house he had bought in Stratford, she could not resist imagining that this was where he wrote his later plays: “How many of his characters and episodes have evolved from the scenes that unfold in the streets beneath him as he wrote in Western light of the study window?” Source: Vice-Chancellor of Stratford Gossip Research from the Early 1660s, John Ward. Orlin’s meticulous handling of archival material fails here, as her passion for transgressing London’s Shakespeare overturns her usual subtlety. Ward never writes that Shakespeare “lived in his earlier days at Stratford, and supplied the theater with two plays each year.” He actually wrote down two separate anecdotes, which Orlin then combined, connecting them with a comma (those curious can refer to the facsimile at the Folger Shakespeare Library website, “Shakespeare Documentation”). Orlin learns that late in his career, Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, working with John Fletcher on his last three works: “Henry VIII,” “The Noble Sacrificial,” and “The Lost Cardinho.” You don’t write plays with co-authors who live three days apart. These are unfortunate steps into an impressive and valuable book, an autobiography that will lead many to revise their class lectures.

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